Calls are growing for the release of imprisoned Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah, who launched a hunger strike on April 2 to protest the harsh conditions he is held under at Cairo’s Tora prison. Abd El-Fattah, who became a leading voice of the Arab Spring revolution, has been in and out of prison for nearly a decade for his human rights activism. His family recently obtained U.K. citizenship for him in the hopes of pressuring Egyptian authorities to release him, and they warn that his condition is rapidly deteriorating behind bars. We speak to his sister, Sanaa Seif, who was also imprisoned on similar charges of disseminating “false news” before being released in December. “Now is a critical time where it finally might be possible for Alaa to be free,” says Seif. “What keeps us going is that we as a family want to survive and want to unite in peace.” We also speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who is joining Seif on a U.S. tour with Alaa’s new book, “You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.” As the pair advocate for Abd El-Fattah’s immediate release, they also discuss more recent government crackdowns on prominent Egyptian voices, such as TikTok influencer Haneen Hossam. “It seems that prison is the government’s answer to any problem with a citizen,” says Kouddous.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn now to Egypt, its sweeping crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists, and urgent calls to release the imprisoned Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah.
Alaa is Egypt’s highest-profile political prisoner. He’s been on hunger strike since April 2nd to protest his harsh conditions, including long-term solitary confinement. This month his family obtained British citizenship for Alaa in an attempt to pressure the Egyptian government to release him from his, quote, “impossible ordeal.” Meanwhile, The Washington Post editorial board has just called for Alaa’s release in a piece headlined “[A] voice of the Arab Spring is being wrongfully detained.”
Alaa’s sister Sanaa is in the United States to call for his freedom from the notorious Tora prison in Cairo and to be reunited with his family. She herself was just released from prison in December, after being arrested for calling attention to his conditions during the pandemic, being almost completely cut off. In a minute, she is going to join us here in New York, where she’s just arrived to begin a tour of the United States with Alaa’s new book, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.
We first interviewed Alaa on Democracy Now! in February 2011 during our special coverage of the Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring.
AMY GOODMAN: And I’ve just been told that we do have someone on the phone right now, so we’re going to go right to that person. Can you tell us who you are and where you are?
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: Hi. This is Alaa Abd El-Fattah. I’m an activist in this revolution. I’m standing in front of the TV building in Cairo.
AMY GOODMAN: OK. Tell us, Alaa — it’s great to have you with us, a prominent Egyptian blogger, democracy activist. What is happening in front of the presidential palace, one of a number of new places that are being occupied by protesters, like Egyptian state TV, as well, and the parliament?
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: In front of the TV building, it’s a big crowd. We can’t shut down the TV building, because of its shape and it’s heavily barricaded by the army. And what we’re trying to do is put pressure on the employees working inside to join us, to revolt and refuse to spread state propaganda.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah speaking to Democracy Now! in February 2011, before he was arrested and ordered jailed by a military court, then briefly released before being imprisoned again. Later that year, in December of 2011, Alaa returned to Democracy Now! to describe the inhumane conditions he faced in prison.
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: I was in a complete darkness for five days. It was very filthy and very crowded. It was nine of us in a two-by-three-meter cell, having no access to water or toilet except 10 minutes per day. You know, so, basically, they knew they couldn’t torture me, because of the solidarity and the media attention, so they just made sure to try and use every other measure to, you know, put me at discomfort or at a psychological pressure. Now, every other person who was arrested in the Maspero incident were tortured severely. And torture is still very systematic in — you know, in police stations and in prisons and so on. But they knew that they couldn’t torture me.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2013, Alaa Abd El-Fattah was arrested for allegedly organizing a political protest without a permit. He was briefly released on bail in 2014 before he was imprisoned again for five years. In March 2019, he was released but was then rearrested. In December, he was sentenced by one of Egypt’s so-called emergency courts to another five years in prison on a charge of, quote, “broadcasting false news on social media.” It was in 2014 that Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous interviewed Alaa while he was free.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You’ve said the word “defeat” a couple of times. Do you think the revolution is over?
ALAA ABD EL-FATTAH: No. I mean, I don’t know if the revolution is over or not. That’s a — you know, the revolution is a historical process that you — you can really only talk — I mean, when we talk about the revolution while living it, we are talking about a dream, you know, a wish, something that we’re trying to fulfill, something that we’re trying to create. But you can only talk about it as being over or not and so on in the distance, you know, while you’re looking back. And so, when I say “defeat,” I mean, you know, in the sense of in a battle.
But we’ll continue to exist, and since we’ll continue to exist, there will continue to be other struggles and so on. It’s not like you have a choice. I mean, an individual might have a choice, if they have a way out. But most people don’t have a choice. You know, we cannot all emigrate, and it’s not like migrant labor gets a good deal anywhere in the world. So, I mean, if what you’re trying to do is to achieve a life of dignity and safety and prosperity for yourself and for your loved ones, then you have no choice.
AMY GOODMAN: Imprisoned Egyptian human rights activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, speaking to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, who will be joining us in a minute.
But for more, we’re joined by Alaa’s sister, Sanaa Seif, a writer, a filmmaker and an activist. She has also been imprisoned three times, has served more than three years in jail. The last time was about a year and a half, and she was released in December. She’s joining us now from New York, where she’s beginning a tour of the United States to call for Alaa’s freedom and also to talk about his new book, which collects his essays, interviews, speeches. The book has just been published in the U.S. by Seven Stories Press. It’s titled You Have Not Yet Been Defeated.
Sanaa, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. It’s so good to see you free right now. In fact, your arrests and your brother Alaa’s arrests have been so intimately connected. In the last year and half you served in prison, you served that time because you were outside, with your mother and your sister Mona, his prison, protesting the COVID conditions that were imposed, which cut him off totally, not even able to receive mail. Can you explain what happened to you when you were protesting?
SANAA SEIF: Hi. Yeah, so, during COVID, the beginning of the pandemic, there was no other way to communicate with Alaa other than letters. And so, all of a sudden they decided to ban letters. And we were hearing rumors that prisoners were suffering from COVID and that there were many cases in prison. And, of course, because I was in prison before, I know how unhygienic it is inside. I know. And they also banned, like, sanitary, so no alcohol, no disinfectant. We filed a few complaints to the prosecution, but nobody replied to us.
So my mother decided to sit in in front of the prison gate, and she wouldn’t leave without getting a letter from Alaa. And so I joined, and my sister joined. And a number of female thugs came to the prison gate and started attacking us. And they beat us up pretty badly, while the officers and the security forces who were securing the prison were watching. So we had to leave. Like, they forcedly removed us from the place.
So, the next day, we went to the prosecutor general’s office to file a complaint for the assault that has happened to us. And at the prosecutor general’s office, like at the gate, I found a van, and they told me to come in, and they took me to State Security Prosecution. And I was faced with the charges of fake news and of insulting public officials and two terrorism charges. They didn’t define, but they said, like, committing a terrorism crime — a terrorist crime.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what happened subsequently, after those charges?
SANAA SEIF: I stayed in prison. A couple of months later, when we went to court, the terrorism charges kind of — they didn’t go to court. They were left on hold. They still exist until now, until today, but on a different case file number, which they can use anytime. But it’s like on hold. And so we went to court with the other charges, the fake news and insulting public official. And I was sentenced to a year and a half.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sanaa, can you talk about the decision of your family to seek British citizenship for your brother? How did that come about? Did the British government cooperate in that? And why did you make that choice?
SANAA SEIF: So, my mother was born in London, and so she had a British citizenship by birth. We always knew that. I think at some point she thought — when we were kids, she thought that she had to take us there and live in England for a year before we become 18 of age, and so she never, like, attempted doing that, because we lived in Egypt. But when things started getting really harsh and when we figured that there is no — it looks like there is no way out, at least for Alaa, out of this black hole, we decided to start exploring if we were eligible for British citizenship. And it turned out that we were. And the process, like, it was a pretty bureaucratic process, but it was kind of — it didn’t need cooperation from the British government, because we were eligible, so we just had to do the paperwork. And then we — and so we got it.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the significance of him getting it, why this was so important to you, Sanaa, to your family, what it means for Alaa to have a country, Britain, behind him as he fights his political imprisonment.
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, so, before the British citizenship, unfortunately, as any Egyptian citizen, so the only government that kind of protects your rights is the Egyptian regime. And if the Egyptian regime chooses for some reason to make you one of their very high-profile enemies, then it is quite impossible to get out of this, because — I’m not sure exactly why Alaa’s case is so hard and why they’re very stubborn about Alaa. It was expressed to me and to us very clearly many times, and each time after my release, I’m always told that “You can travel. You can live your life. You just need to forget about your brother.” So, we know very well that they are very stubborn about it.
I think it also has to do with the fact that they’ve been building up for years of making him an example to a generation, to anybody who participated in this uprising. And so, because they’ve made him such an example now, they have to kind of break that example.
By getting the British citizenship, now you have a more democratic government that you can talk to, that you can put pressure on, and that you can — that should then advocate for his release. And so, maybe — and so, that’s why I think now is a critical time where it finally might be possible for Alaa to be free.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re showing images, as you speak, Sanaa, of Alaa holding his little boy, at the time a baby, now 10 years old. I mean, your whole family — your father, Ahmed Seif El-Islam, died in 2014, veteran Egyptian lawyer, activist, also a former political prisoner, arrested and tortured in 1983 for his political activism, served five years in prison, went on to found the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which provided key legal assistance to protesters, arrested also at the height of the 2011 Egyptian uprising. And then, last October, we spoke with your mother, Laila Soueif. Professor Soueif told us — she’s a mathematician, of course, you know — she sees it as her duty as a mother to persevere through the difficulty of having her children jailed. This is what she said while you and your brother were in prison.
LAILA SOUEIF: I get the strength from the fact that both Alaa and Sanaa are in jail, and I need to keep going at least until I get them out. I mean, I don’t have a choice. And actually, for quite a long time I haven’t had a choice, because for the past 10 years Alaa and Sanaa have been in and out of jail so many times. And when they weren’t in jail, they were out on bail or whatever. So, of course, I have other reasons for going on, but, I mean, even if I wanted to stop, even I cannot. I don’t have a choice. It’s really not me being strong or brave or whatever. It’s just me being a mother.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Sanaa, if you can talk about your mother’s support for your family, and also the fact that your brother now is on this hunger strike, something you know well, because you went on hunger strike in prison recently for over 70 days, having only water and salt?
SANAA SEIF: Yeah, I feel what Mama is saying. I mean, I think that’s how we all feel. Starting in 2014, and especially after my father’s death, while me and Alaa, we were in prison, the attack, even like the media attack, was no longer about — it seemed more personalized, and it’s like an attack on our family. And so, now it’s like a matter of survival, really. It’s no longer a political cause. What moves me, what keeps us going is that we, as a family, want to survive and want to unite in peace. So, I don’t think they are giving us any choice but to resist them.
About the hunger strike, I went on strike back in 2014, when my father died while we were both inside. So, I understand how it feels physically. It’s not easy. It’s very painful, especially in the first two weeks, and then, somehow, the body adapts and kind of understands that it’s no longer going to get food, and so it’s going to rely on its own calories. But then, when you’re — there is another phase when — and it depends on your body, but when you’re done with the extra calories, and then so the body has to kind of break the muscles and get energy from that. And so, it’s quite a painful process.
Although I’m sad for Alaa having to go through this, I’m actually also very proud of him for choosing to be resilient and for fighting back. And I really think this time we have a chance, so I think he chose the right time to do that. And I think this time will be different. I don’t think Alaa will break that strike unless he’s actually out. And I agree with him for that, because this is our window to get out of this deadlock.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Sanaa Seif is a writer, a filmmaker, activist and sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Egypt’s highest-profile political prisoner, who rose to international prominence during the revolution of 2011. His book has just been published in the United States, titled You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Sanaa is just out of prison herself, overall having served more than three years in prison. She is 28 years old. We’ll be back with Sanaa, as well as Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous. They’ve both come to the United States and will travel the country talking about Alaa, his imprisonment and his freedom. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Ya El Medan” by the Egyptian band Cairokee. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue to look at Egypt’s sweeping crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists, urgent calls to release the imprisoned activist and blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah, Egypt’s highest-profile political prisoner, who’s been on hunger strike since April 2nd to protest his harsh conditions, including long-term solitary confinement, demanding his freedom. He has also just become a British citizen, which is extremely significant. We are joined by his sister, Sanaa Seif, as well as Sharif Abdel Kouddous. Sharif is a Democracy Now! correspondent. They are both here in the United States taking a journey across the country, also talking about the book, Alaa’s book, that has just been released. It’s called You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes. Hi. I’d like to ask both Sharif and Sanaa — it’s been more than a decade now since the Arab Spring raised so much inspiration and hope in not only the people of Egypt but throughout the Arab world. And I’m wondering if you could both reflect on how Egypt has changed and what life is like now in this country after so many of the hopes were dashed by the new military dictatorship.
SANAA SEIF: Seems like a lifetime ago. But you go.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, life has changed significantly in a lot of different aspects. It seems that prison is the government’s answer to any problem with a citizen. And with that, they’ve — you know, over the past 10 years, something like over two dozen new prisons have been established. They’re building these massive new prison complexes in the desert, in Sinai, that can hold tens of thousands of prisoners. So, there’s this kind of ballooning of the prison population, because the government, the regime doesn’t really deal with any of the social — deep social, economic and political problems that are in the country except through incarceration or other forms of oppression.
So it’s been very difficult, and also the economic situation has really become quite bad. There’s been a very neoliberal economic reform agenda with tax hikes and subsidy cuts and spiraling levels of domestic and foreign debt with very high levels — with very high interest rates, that has kind of put the economy and the country in a very precarious situation. Food security is now at risk because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world and was getting — and Russia and Ukraine are two of the largest exporters of wheat in the world.
So, I mean, life there has become — is difficult. It’s a far cry — as Sanaa just said, it seems like a lifetime ago, what was happening in 2011 with the sense of hope and the sense of possibility for change. But something that Alaa often talks about and writes about — and a lot of it is in the book — is: How do we confront this defeat? How do we learn from it? How do we move forward? And how do we not look back just in nostalgia, but as political actors think and communicate with each other and know how to — and think about how to move forward and heal?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And Sanaa?
SANAA SEIF: Yeah. So, the main chant in the revolution back in 2011 was “bread, freedom and dignity.” So, obviously, bread: The economic situation has gotten much, much worse. Freedom: Most of us are in prison or forcibly disappearing. And dignity: Well, dignity is being crushed. So, it’s fair to say that we’ve been defeated. But we do hope that, like how the Arab Spring was inspiring to others, even in our defeat, that we could learn from that story and inspire others who have not yet been defeated. And this is exactly the point of the book.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sanaa, I wanted to ask you — you’ve spent — you’ve been in prison three different times now. The particular condition that women face in prison in Egypt, if you could talk about that, in not only your own experiences but what you saw among other fellow women prisoners?
SANAA SEIF: OK. Generally speaking, women’s conditions, political prisoners — and when we talk about political prisoners, are relatively better than men. But it is very, very bad compared to, like, human rights standards. The deterioration, I really noticed with the criminal charges cases mostly, because there is like a sexism violence. I saw you had — you were covering the Haneen Hossam case, the TikTok case. I saw these people, girls like this, a lot in prison, who were arrested from a cafe or in the street just for wearing revealing clothes and put on prostitution charges. I think because I was in and out many times, so I noticed that the numbers are pretty high. So, it’s like — it’s as if the prosecution has started to take like an attack, a gender attack kind of thing.
But that’s not — I’m not here talking about the political prisoners. Also, political prisoners, females, the deterioration also happened. Like, my conditions back in 2014 were much better than in 2021. So, we’re catching up with the general deterioration. We’re just like one step before the men, because when it comes to political prisoners, somehow sexism works in your favor, because it’s not as acceptable torturing a woman than torturing a man. And it’s not as acceptable torturing a woman who’s not from an Islamist background rather than a woman who’s from an Islamist background. And so, that’s how the difference is. But the whole situation is very, very bad.
AMY GOODMAN: Just showing the images of the TikTok influencer Haneen Hossam, who’s just been sentenced to three years in prison on human trafficking charges. She faced 10 years for posting a video on — well, in 2020, she posted a video on Instagram explaining how women could earn money by sharing these videos online. But before we end, Sharif, I was wondering if you could be our tour guide through your tour of the United States now. I know you’re speaking at Columbia Law school, the two of you, today at noon. And then, where you go from there? And what are you hoping to accomplish with this You Have Not Yet Been Defeated tour of the release of Alaa’s book?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we’re hoping to raise awareness about Alaa’s case here in the United States, both with people, so they can understand where their taxpayer dollars are going — Egypt is one of the main allies of the United States in the Middle East, and Alaa is arguably the most famous political prisoner being held there — and also for lawmakers and officials in Washington to understand, as well, what exactly Alaa’s case is, but also, more importantly, to bring Alaa’s words and voice to people.
This is a collection of 10 years of his writing, of his communications from prison, of his social media posts, of his statements to the prosecutor. And it really is worth reading for anyone who’s interested in ideas of justice. You know, he’s a very experimental writer and thinker, who is very vulnerable when he writes and very open. And so I think it’s an important book for anyone to read.
But we’re going to D.C. tomorrow, and we’ll be speaking at Georgetown and at the National Press Club, and then, after that, to Chicago, to Seattle, to San Francisco and the Bay Area, to L.A., to Houston and back. And, you know —
AMY GOODMAN: And if people want to get information about the tour and if you’re coming to their city, where can they go?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’ve put up a link with all the sites, with all the events. I can’t say it off the top of my head
AMY GOODMAN: And we will link to it.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We can link to it on the site.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll link to it at democracynow.org. I want to thank you both for being with us, Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, Mada Masr reporter in Egypt, and Sanaa Seif, writer, filmmaker, activist, imprisoned herself for more than three years, sister of Alaa Abd El-Fattah. His book is just out, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe.